The not-so-golden bowl.
Unfortunately for Merchant-Ivory, the theatrical trailer for The Golden Bowl starts of with .”…the Academy-Award-nominated creators of A Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains Of The Day.” Once you hear that list, the odds are that what you’re about to see will be lesser fare. In fact, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory have been seeking to regain the high standard set by those titles for almost a decade, but generally unsuccessfully so far. Since 1993’s The Remains of the Day, the duo (along with their normal screenplay writer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) have given us such efforts as Jefferson in Paris (1995), Surviving Picasso (1996), and most recently The Golden Bowl (2000). Surviving Picasso is the best of these, mainly due to Anthony Hopkins’s great work in the title role, but even it seemed to lack the essential rightness of casting and location work that made Merchant-Ivory’s best efforts so entertaining.
Previously filmed as a British television miniseries in 1972, the 2000 theatrical film, The Golden Bowl, returns Merchant-Ivory to the tried and true territory of E.M. Forster and Henry James with an adaptation of James’s novel of the same title, and gives us a promising cast of fine actors. The resulting film received a Golden Palm nomination at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Lions Gate Home Entertainment now offers us the film on DVD in a bare-bones presentation.
Maggie Verver is the daughter of a rich American living in England, Adam Verver, who has amassed a large art collection. She becomes enamored of a poor but charming Italian aristocrat, Prince Amerigo, and marries him. Meanwhile, her father marries the beautiful Charlotte Stant, who, unknown to Maggie, was formerly the Prince’s lover, and is still intensely interested in him. The two families are thrown into almost constant contact and Maggie begins to suspect that Amerigo and Charlotte are having an affair. Her suspicions are heightened because of her purchase of a golden bowl and subsequent revelations by the salesman as to the bowl’s recent history. Meanwhile, her father is considering the construction of a new public building to house his collection in a major U.S. city and threatens to move there, taking Charlotte with him. Both marriages are on shaky ground as all four individuals weigh the merits of their current relationships.
There are several problems with The Golden Bowl, but the main one is its failure to capture a feeling of realism in its use of sets and location work. Unlike their most successful films, we never get the sense that The Golden Bowl‘s world is other than an artificial one. The various opulent houses never seem like homes, but rather museums loaned out for the film (which in reality they often are, but Merchant-Ivory’s best work has in the past transcended that fact).
Of course, actors have often played a large role in overcoming this sort of problem, but they fail to do so in the case of The Golden Bowl. The cast list is impressive — Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman, Anjelica Huston, James Fox, Jeremy Northam, and Kate Beckinsale — but in most cases the actors are misused. Nick Nolte is a case in point. Now, I bow to no one in my enjoyment of Nolte’s work, and I still feel his effort in Affliction did not receive all the recognition it deserved. Nick Nolte, however, is not a period piece actor, American or otherwise, and Merchant-Ivory should have learned that lesson after miscasting him as Thomas Jefferson in Jefferson in Paris. In The Golden Bowl, we’ve got him portraying a gruff American art collector living in a Versailles-like house in England, and every time he appears on the screen, he breaks any spell the film may have managed to cast. James Fox, on the other hand, has done very well in British period pieces, but here he’s just wasted in a minor role as the bemused husband of Anjelica Huston’s character. Jeremy Northam is another British actor who has made a name for himself in recent period work like An Ideal Husband and The Winslow Boy where he had generally forceful roles. He seems oddly diminished in physical stature playing the part of Amerigo, probably because the character is pretty much of an non-entity even though it’s one of the leading roles.
Therein lies another problem with The Golden Bowl. The source material is not one of Henry James’s strongest novels, being more a succession of distinct events than a unified story. Too much depends on the chance that Maggie happens upon a golden bowl in a curio shop, a bowl that the store’s owner has held for years and years just because another woman (who happened to be Charlotte) professed interest in it and said she might return to buy it. Aside from this contrivance, however, the plot lacks dramatic tension because it just doesn’t make us care what Adam Verver does with his antiques (and what’s with the business of calling Verver’s U.S. destination “American City,” instead of using a real city name) nor whether his daughter Maggie’s marriage survives or not. Maggie’s chief rival, Charlotte, is a one-note character who is more annoying than anything else (although played fetchingly by Uma Thurman and with a little more energy than she usually displays).
James Ivory directs with a nice eye for scene composition, taking advantage of the sumptuous locations available to him and making fairly consistent use of the 2.35:1 Panavision framing. Richard Robbins contributes a fine music score that grows on you with repeated exposure to it.
Lions Gate’s DVD version presents the film in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that’s not bad at all. Colours are quite vibrant and the image is predominantly very sharp and nicely detailed. There is the odd suggestion of softness, but the instances are fleeting. Edge enhancement is noticeable at times, but it is not an issue that continually draws attention to itself. I believe most viewers will be quite happy with what they see here.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a fully satisfactory job with the film’s sound. Little use is made of the surrounds in this dialogue-driven film, except when the background music comes to the fore, and then we get a very rich feeling of envelopment. There is essentially no workout for the lower frequencies. Dialogue is crisply and clearly delivered. English and Spanish subtitles are available.
The only supplement is a theatrical trailer.
The Golden Bowl is a competent effort from the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, but once again fails to match their best efforts. Despite a pleasing look, fine music and a good acting turn from Uma Thurman, the film lacks a plot with makes us really care about the characters. It also fails to make us suspend our disbelief concerning the artificially of life in the settings depicted. Lions Gate gives us a pretty-good looking DVD, but it’s an uninspiring package otherwise.